A Review of
Science and the Modern World.
Whitehead, A. N., (1925). New York: The Free Press, Macmillan Pub.
Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.
[The author may be contacted via email: email@example.com]
[For the Laurel Leader-Call (4/97)]
I endeavor to succinctly summarize the
book but more fully exegete the chapter on "Romantic Reaction." (V). Whitehead's
Science and the Modern World was taken from the 1926 Lowell lectures at
Harvard University. The book is a study of certain aspects of Western culture
over the past three centuries inasmuch as they have been influenced by
and influence science. Brief allusions are made to non-Western cultures
in this connection.
Cosmologies are influenced by science, aesthetics, ethics, and religion. With the integration of these areas in each epoch a world view can be elucidated. "Philosophy, in one of its functions, is the critic of cosmologies" (p. vii). Philosophy scrutinizes, harmonizes, and re-fashions our ideas about reality. This is one of the aspects of the intersection of philosophy and science.
The origins of modern science are to be found in Europe but its home is the whole world. It is becoming evident that what the West can give to the East is its science and its scientific outlook. "This is transferable from country to country and from race to race, wherever there is a rational society" (p. 3). The faith of an "Order of Things" is inherent to a scientific view, only what sort of order is it? On the contrary, Hume says "in a word, then, every effect is a distinct event from its cause. It could not, therefore, be discovered in the cause; and the first invention or conception of it, a priori, must be entirely arbitrary" (p. 4). Whitehead points out that some variant of Hume's philosophy has generally prevailed among men of science. However the scientific faith has "tacitly removed the philosophic mountain" (p. 4).
Scientific advancement is made by conceiving
of things great and small exemplifying general principles. There is also
an equally obvious principle: nothing ever recurs in exact detail. This
accounts for Whitehead's rejection of causation. Nonetheless, the discovery
of the general principles of order was not fully under taken until the
close of the Middle Ages. At this time there was a revolt against the earlier
intellectualism. "It is a great mistake to conceive this historical revolt
as an appeal to reason. On the contrary, it was through and through an
anti- intellectualist movement" (p. 8).
In the current question concerning quantum theory we find a movement away from a metaphysical mechanism cosmology. If electrons and protons do not continuously traverse a path in space a philosophical problem arises. Why is it that we seem to perceive objects in relative permanence? Whitehead answers this with the analogy of sound and light. We believe sound is successive vibrations yet we hear a continuous note from the tuba. Why could matter not be a similar kind of pulsation. The metaphor of vibration can be used to explain the relationship between our common sense perceptions and the quantum model of matter. It is not a continuing substance but vibrations, or as he would say in other places, events. This opens the door for a philosophy of organism in contradistinction to that of mechanism.
In the advancement of science Whitehead
praises Da Vinci and Bacon for a legal mentality and the patient observation
habits of a naturalistic artist. On the chief scientific tool, induction,
Whitehead makes an interesting comment. "Induction presupposes metaphysics.
In other words, it rests upon an antecedent rationalism. You cannot have
a rational justification for your appeal to history till your metaphysics
has assured you that there is a history to appeal to; and likewise your
conjectures as to the future presuppose some basis of knowledge that there
is a future already subjected to some determinations. The difficulty is
to make sense of either of these ideas. But unless you have done so, you
have made nonsense of induction" (p. 44). The influence of the narrow and
efficient scheme of scientific concepts upon the eighteenth century was
great. The Protestant Calvinism and the Catholic Jansenism viewed man as
helpless to co-operate with Irresistible Grace. In the mechanistic scheme
of science man is helpless to cooperate with the irresistible mechanism
of nature. The mechanism of God and the mechanism of matter were problems.
The seventeenth century had great intellect, and cleared the world of muddled
thought. The eighteenth century continued the work of clearance. The scientific
scheme has outlived its theological ancestor. In the first quarter of the
eighteenth century, George Berkeley launched his philosophical criticism
against the whole basis of the system. He failed to derail the dominant
train of thought. In summary, Whitehead's interpretation of the history
of science leads him to conclude the best relation between cosmology and
metaphysics is a philosophy of organism, rejecting the philosophy of substance.
THE ROMANTIC REACTION
In "The Romantic Reaction" he considers the opposition to a world view of mechanism. "It is in literature that the concrete outlook of humanity receives its expression" (p. 76). Through literature the inward thoughts of a generation are disclosed. There is a fundamental inconsistency at this point in Western culture: "a scientific realism, based on mechanism is conjoined with an unwavering belief in the world of men and of the higher animals being composed of self-determining organisms" (p. 76). Whitehead finds this as the "cause" of what is half- hearted and wavering in our civilization. It enfeebles thought. It leaves us, he says, with superficial orderings from diverse arbitrary starting points. The activities of people presuppose physical actions directed to final causes. But the science which is employed in their development is based on a philosophy which enthrones physical causation, resulting in the incongruity of physical cause from the final end. "It is not popular to dwell on the absolute contradiction here involved" (p. 76).
But so far as the mass of literature is
concerned, science might never have been heard of. For the most part, the
great literary artists were interested in neither philosophy nor science.
Nevertheless, there has been an indirect influence of science on art. Whitehead
illustrates this with some literary excerpts.
The relevant poems are Milton's Paradise
Lost, Pope's Essay on Man, Wordsworth's Excursion, Tennyson's ln Memoriam.
Milton illustrates the theological aspect untouched by the influence of
scientific materialism. Pope's poem represents the effect on popular thought
which includes the first period of assured triumph for the scientific movement.
Wordsworth expresses a conscious reaction against the mentality of the
eighteenth century. Taking scientific ideas at their full face value, Wordsworth
was morally repulsed since what had been left out of mechanism comprised
everything that was most important. A machine cannot value. Mechanist science
could not produce a poet who says,
Ye Presences of Nature in the sky
And on earth! Ye Visions of the hills!
And Souls of lonely places! can I think
A vulgar hope was yours when ye through many a year
Haunting me thus among my boyish sports,
On caves and trees, upon the woods and hills,
Impressed upon all forms the characters
Of danger or desire; and thus did make
The surface of the universal earth,
With triumph and delight, with hope and
fear,Work like a sea? (p. 84)
Tennyson is the mouthpiece of the waning
romantic movement in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. By this
time a clear interpretation of the course of nature and the life of man
was disclosed. Tennyson is appalled by the problem of mechanism.
" 'The stars,' she whispers, 'blindly run.'
This line states starkly the whole philosophic
problem implicit in the poem. Here, Whitehead gives a clear argument against
mechanism. Each molecule blindly runs. The human body is a collection of
molecules. Therefore, the human body blindly runs, and therefore, there
can be no individual responsibility for the actions of the body. If you
once accept that the molecule is definitely determined to be what it is,
independently of any determination by reason of the total organism of the
body, and if you further admit the general mechanical laws, this conclusion
is clear. There are then two possible theories as to the mind. You either
deny that it can supply for itself any experiences other than those provided
for it by the body, or you can admit them. If you refuse to admit the additional
experiences, then all individual moral responsibility is no more. lf you
do admit additional experiences, then a human being may be responsible
for the state of his mind though he has no responsibility for the actions
of his body. The enfeeblement of thought in the modern world is illustrated
by the way which this plain issue is avoided in Tennyson's poem. It is
in the background, "a skeleton in the cupboard." Although Tennyson almost
comprehensively speaks to every religious and scientific problem, he avoids
This very problem was in full debate at the date of the poem. John Stuart Mill was maintaining his doctrine of determinism. In this doctrine volitions are determined by motives and motives are expressible in terms of antecedent conditions including states of mind as well as states of the body.
Mill does not escape from the dilemma presented by a thoroughgoing mechanism. "For if the volition affects the state of the body, then the molecules in the body do not blindly run. If the volition does not affect the state of the body, the mind is still left in its uncomfortable position" (p. 78). Mill's doctrine is generally accepted as though it allowed you to accept the materialistic mechanism, and yet mitigate its unbelievable consequences. Whitehead contends that it does not. "Either the bodily molecules blindly run, or they do not. If they do blindly run, the mental states are irrelevant in discussing them" (79).
"Vitalism" is one proposed solution but
it is a compromise which seeks to deal with the problem by creating a dichotomy
between the dead matter and that which is within living organisms. The
result is an essential dualism. Whitehead's proposal is a philosophy of
science based on organism which seeks the following solution. In an animal
the mental states affect the total organism. In this view an electron in
a body acts in accordance with it character and not simply as a dead bit
of matter. The smallest uncuttable in the universe is an organism.
In conclusion, the sermon Whitehead preaches in Science and the Modern World could be entitled "Man not Machine." In particular within the chapter on "The Romantic Reaction" he illustrates the aesthetic response to the "cog in a machine" world view. Since the "elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought (Process and Reality, p. 4)," the poets express our experiences most vividly. "I hold that the ultimate appeal is to naive experience and that is why I lay such stress on the evidence of poetry" (p. 89). "The romantic reaction was a protest on behalf of value" (p. 94).
RESPONSE TO WHITEHEAD'S ARGUMENT AGAINST
Whitehead has certainly illumined the contradiction between mechanism and humanity. However, his argument reminds me of Kant's moral proof for the existence of God. Kant, after allegedly destroying the traditional proofs in the Critique of Pure Reason, points out the necessity of God if our values are to be meaningful. The transcendental supposition for meaningful moral behavior is a Being who is able to judge and reward with the necessary attributes to do so, etc. Analogously, Whitehead argues if the universe is a big machine then we can have no values, no responsibility, and no freedom since we are part of that machine. However, just like the existentialists followed Kant, reversing the moral proof, there is no God--ERGO, no moral values; the behaviorists are turning the scientific proposition on its head and saying in effect, the universe is a machine--ERGO, we do not have freedom.
For example, the popular behaviorist, B.
F. Skinner (1971), says the view that man is free to deliberate, decide,
and act, possibly in original ways and is to be given credit for his successes
and blamed for his failures is a prescientific view. Further, Skinner (1978)
might say to Whitehead (in the context of "the elucidation of immediate
experience..."), "Unfortunately the feeling of being free is not a reliable
indication that we have reached such a world" (p. 198). Skinner (1978)
likens a person's spontaneous or free actions to the alleged spontaneous
generation of maggots in Pasteur's day--a fiction (p. 54).
Skinner, B. F. (1980). About behaviorism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom
and dignity. Toronto: Bantam Books.
Skinner, B. F. (1978). Reflections on behaviorism and society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall.